Given the recent media coverage of the nuclear talks with Iran, and the status of the Middle East generally, there is a little-known nuance that may be of interest to people here in the West who want to understand the situation more fully. I say this as an Iranian-American who was born and raised in America, yet with significant ties to Iran, the land where my parents, grandparents, and ancestors were born going back most likely over 3,000 years. My main intention is to provide a sense of perspective to anyone who may have an interest in the subject of Iran as pertaining to the global community, both in light of the current diplomatic reconciliation, and also beyond. That said, let's explore what I believe to be the top thing that non-Iranians ought to know about Iran today.
The No. 1 Holiday in Iran is Nowruz
Nowruz literally means "new day," and is the Iranian equivalent of "New Year's." Instead of January 1st, it starts each year on the first day of Spring. It has been celebrated for more than 3,000 years, and to this day remains the top holiday in Iran. For about two full weeks, the entire country is consumed with Nowruz celebrations -- visiting family, exchanging gifts, hopping over fires to welcome the new year, listening to music, dancing, and spending time outdoors. People look forward to Nowruz with a joy, excitement, and passion that far surpass any other ceremony in Iran. Ask anyone in Iran what the biggest annual event is, and they will say Nowruz.
To understand the significance of this, allow me to provide a brief history lesson for anyone who may not be familiar with the region. For over 2,500 years, Iran was a sovereign nation ruled by a king. The original religion of Iran was Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic faith that preceded -- and influenced -- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. As an interesting aside, the Iranian (and Zoroastrian) kings, Cyrus and Darius, liberated the Jews from Babylon, and helped the Jews to rebuild their temple in Jerusalem.
Throughout the centuries, Iran encountered many different nations including the ancient Greeks, Romans, Mongols, Arabs, and Turks. Then, in 1979, a revolution took place that ended monarchy in Iran, and saw the introduction of Islamic clerics as the new rulers. The official name of the country became The Islamic Republic of Iran. All throughout their history prior to this sea change, for almost two millennia, Iranians referred to their country simply as Iran, with nothing before or after it.
Today, Iran is ruled by Islamic law. Most major parts of life -- all levels of government, commerce, banking, trade, medicine, the legal system, food and drink, etc. -- are subject to Islamic rules and regulations. There are state-sanctioned Islamic holidays that people are required to observe, rules on clothing (e.g. women must wear headscarves in public), and countless other reminders that Islamic rule presides. Perhaps the ultimate symbol of this is that the Islamic term for God, "Allah," is currently emblazoned across the center of the Iranian flag. There used to be a lion and sun in the center instead.
Two Contrasting Facts
And yet, despite the strict Islamic law and the absolute control of the country by religious leaders, the most important national event is this non-Islamic, pre-Islamic holiday called Nowruz. This is astounding, especially given that various Islamic hardliners have repeatedly attempted to suppress Nowruz -- but were not able to do so. It is as if the Iranian people drew a line in the sand and said Nowruz is a part of us that we will never give up. So we have these two facts to consider: 1. The Islamic Republic of Iran is under the absolute rule of Islamic leadership; and 2. The pre-Islamic holiday of Nowruz is by far the most influential national event in Iran. The essence of Iran can be found in the space between these two facts.
I am not a historian, diplomat, or foreign policy expert. But I am an Iranian-American, and I know the way Iranians look forward to Nowruz, the way they talk about it, how big a part of their lives it is, and how seriously they take it. I know how much love they put into preparations for Nowruz, the meals they cook to share with their families, and the phone calls connecting with family and friends across the world to wish them a happy Nowruz. I know how much of their thoughts are consumed by this holiday for two weeks, and perhaps a few days before and after the celebrations. I know what they chant as they jump over the fires, and how it gives them a feeling of connection to the deep and rich culture of their predecessors who have done the same for millennia. In short, I know just how big of a deal Nowruz is to Iranians from direct, personal experience.
Thankfully, world leaders appear to be taking note. So much so, in fact, that the President of the United States delivers an annual Nowruz speech (this year President Obama even quoted Hafez, a famous Persian poet). While this is an encouraging sign of the ongoing development of a sustainable relationship between Iran and the West -- not just for nuclear talks, but for social and economic relations going forward -- it merits repetition that despite strict and omnipresent Islamic influence in Iran, Nowruz remains the number one holiday. This speaks volumes. For anyone interested in knowing the real Iran, I humbly suggest that the key may be in understanding how Nowruz fits into Iranian hearts and minds.